Wednesday, April 05, 2006

[politics] So... how old is the Modern Era, anyway?

Kieran Healy made an interesting observation on Crooked Timber yesterday - what we think of as the Modern Era isn't really that old, even when measured in very human terms. If for our purposes we define modernity as commencing with the Enlightenment (which is more or less where contemporary historians place it), how 'old' is our society if we measure it using a 'Kevin Bacon'-esque degrees of separation model? Surprisingly, the answer is "Not very.":
[Oliver Wendell Holmes] died in 1935, and so there are still many people alive today who knew him, or at least shook hands with him. Holmes was born in 1841, and as a boy he met John Quincy Adams, who was born in 1767. So [...] you are just three handshakes away from a man born before the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and arguably before the Industrial Revolution, as well.
Healy is trying to impress upon his students that, despite their own perception of the 1980s as being ancient history, 'real' history isn't really all that old. Implicit in his observation is this: the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights are far less entrenched than they are made to appear. From this perspective, it is perhaps less surprising that the definition of these rights, enumerated or not, is still (very much? somewhat?) open to debate. At first, this thought is somewhat depressing - rather than defending mature ideas and ideals, we're guiding them through their late adolescence or early adulthood. On the other hand, this could be flipped around to provide inspiration: this is still a living, dynamic debate; it is still a relatively young debate, and therefore participation in that debate is of paramount importance. Lady Liberty may not have quite the same ruddy glow in her cheeks or youthful flush on her breasts as when she led the crowd to the Bastille - but she's no toothless crone, either. We are still in the early days of (what may still be) a better nation. ('Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.' - Alasdair Gray. "If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god." - Graydon Saunders) - [via]

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